/ 13 October 1995

The politics of choosing a messiah’s heir

Ann Eveleth

Only the wind stirred in Ebu-hleni when Rogers Ngcobo took the podium last Sunday. Tens of thousands of white-robed Nazarites, who had gathered in the tree-cloaked shantytown to mourn the death of their spiritual leader Bishop Amos Shembe, listened in stunned silence to his message.

Ngcobo, a local bottle-store owner and non-Nazarite, told them that Shembe had entrusted him to reveal his heir, the new “black messiah”, the prophet, healer and father confessor to all the faithful. He said Shembe’s son Vimbeni was designated to take over the leadership of the two-million-strong, mainly Zulu, Nazareth Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the country and a powerful force in KwaZulu-Natal.

Inkatha Freedom Party-aligned chief Nkanyisa Biyela rose to second Ngcobo’s motion, saying that Shembe had come to him in a “vision” to tell him that Ngcobo would reveal the new leader.

Shembe had not yet been buried, but thousands of barefoot worshippers rose to leave the service, some shocked that their leader could send “an outsider” with such a controversial decree and others angry at what they believed was a hidden hand behind the announcement that promised to split the church anew.

Moments earlier, President Nelson Mandela had warned the congregation that “it would be tragic if the enemies of peace were to take advantage of this time of stress to create wedges in your leadership. Let us close ranks against anyone who would try to sow division.”

Political divisions between African National Congress and IFP supporters, which have plagued KwaZulu-Natal, have long been enmeshed in the church, and Mandela’s message was pointed. Church sources say speculation about Ngcobo’s “premature” announcement began days earlier, when Ngcobo’s brother, IFP-aligned chief Mzonjani Ngcobo, was heard “reminding” parishioners that Ebuhleni was “his” land.

Chief Ngcobo had given the land to Shembe more than 15 years earlier, when a first split rocked the church and Shembe and his followers fled the church’s Ekuphakameni headquarters down the Inanda township road. Now he wants them to support Vimbeni Shembe’s ascension to the powerful — and wealthy — Shembe throne.

Church leaders earlier said they would announce the successor only after examining Shembe’s will at a meeting due on Thursday. If no successor was named, a group of seven priests would pray for guidance before announcing a decision.

Sources say Ngcobo’s announcement led groups of “concerned members” to hold a flurry of meetings this week to propose an alternative candidate, believing that the church would disintegrate further under Vimbeni Shembe’s leadership.

“If Vimbeni is imposed on the church, there will definitely be a split,” warned Mini Shembe, son of Johannes, the last Shembe to lead the church when it was still united.

“The problem is that there are few candidates who possess the necessary theological training and leadership skills and could be acceptable to everyone,” added Mini Shembe who, some sources suggest, is a possible contender for the position, given his training as a priest and his former work for the South African Council of Churches.

Succession, however, is a delicate matter among the “Shembes” as the church faithful are commonly known. Steeped in African traditionalism, the leader compares to a chief, except that “his power begins and ends with the church” and succession has thus far been patrilineal. When church founder Isaiah Shembe died, his son Johannes took over. But Johannes’ death in 1976 heralded a new era of uncertainty.

Johannes’ brother Amos became regent while the future leader was being sought. But as Amos Shembe refused to relinquish power, squabbles between him and Johannes Shembe’s family led to Johannes’ son Londa staging a quiet coup which split the church in 1979, driving Amos and his followers out of Ekhuphakameni, to which he would never return.

Housing deep contradictions between its traditionalist roots and and its urban location, the church was not immune to the violence which rocked KwaZulu- Natal in the 1980s.

In 1989, Londa Shembe died in a hail of bullets at the hands of perpetrators who remain unnamed. More than a dozen church leaders died in the ensuing conflict and Ekhuphakameni has since remained leaderless. Rumours of third force involvement in Londa Shembe’s death abound, but his brother Mini says Londa had played “both sides of the fence”.

The ANC-aligned Londa had provided a refuge for United Democratic Front activists, but was “close friends with MangosuthuButhelezi, via chief Simon Gumede, the KwaZulu Minister of Public Works”, Mini said.

In Ebuhleni, Amos Shembe’s ministers, who promoted the IFP to the congregation, sparked rebellion among the UDF-aligned youths, further splintering the erstwhile tightly-knit communities.

Prior to the April 1994 election, rumours that IFP supporters from KwaMashu’s volatile men’s hostel had set up base in Ekhuphakameni accompanied sporadic incidents of violence, while ANC returnees to a neighbouring section of Inanda began to mix with residents of Ebuhleni, changing the political texture of the former IFP stronghold.

The solemn lowering of Amos Shembe’s ox-hide-clad body into the ground at Ebuhleni last Sunday etched the Shembes’ divisions forever into the earth. Unable to be buried at the church headquarters in Ekuphakameni, Amos Shembe’s grave will be a constant reminder that the “new covenant” which Isaiah brought down from Nhlangakazi mountain some 80 years ago, had been broken.